Rise of extreme right overshadows Vranitzky's triumph

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FOR a man who is about to win a third successive term of office, Franz Vranitzky, the Austrian Chancellor, has a downbeat look about him. On a personal level, all opinion polls conducted before this Sunday's general election show he is still the most popular politician in the country.

His party, the Social Democratic SPO looks certain to remain the largest in the parliament, the driving force in a coalition that embraces the more right-of-centre People's Party (OVP). A youthful-looking 57, Mr Vranitzky should be relishing the prospect of a further four years in power.

Instead, he gives the impression of being tired of it all. Critics say he has run out of steam. Despite being members of the same coalition, some leaders of the OVP, most notably Alois Mock, the Foreign Minister, have suggested it is time for the SPO to go into opposition. The main cause of the Chancellor's disquiet, however, is Jorg Haider, the populist leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) who has gone on record as saying Hitler's employment policies had much to commend them.

Despite such gaffes - that one cost him the governorship of the southern province of Carinthia in 1991 - nothing seems to check Mr Haider's rise. In the eight years since he won the leadership of the previously liberal FPO, he has shifted the party to the right and presided over a dramatic surge in its support from just 5 per cent to more than 16 per cent.

This time around, Mr Haider is tipped to win over 20 per cent: not enough to give him real power, but more than enough to remind people of the growing threat he poses. Besides, Mr Haider is biding his time. He has no illusion of becoming chancellor after Sunday's vote. He thinks that it will happen after the next election, in 1998.

'Ten years ago, such talk was dismissed as sheer nonsense,' said Friedenhelm Frischenschlager of the Liberal Forum, a party that was formed last year by a breakaway faction within the FPO. 'Today, nobody knows.'

In the early years of his ascendancy, Mr Haider was frequently compared to the leaders of extreme right-wing movements elsewhere in Europe: Franz Schonhuber in Germany and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. Like them, he espoused cheap nationalism and unashamedly anti-foreigner sentiments. Like them, too, he drew his support primarily from disgruntled members of the working class.

Mr Haider's appeal, however, has proved far more extensive. For a start, he does not really look like a photo-fit Nazi. His youth (still only 44) and boyish good looks set him far apart from the likes of Mr Schonhuber and Mr Le Pen.

He is also a skilled media operator. In television debates with Mr Vranitzky and other party leaders, he frequently gains the upper hand. The politician with whom he is most frequently compared now is Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, Austria attracted tens of thousands of would-be refugees, providing Mr Haider with an easy target for his xenophobic venom. When the Austrian government, largely as a reaction to Mr Haider, imposed tight new immigration laws last year, the FPO leader changed tack. Earlier this year he spearheaded the anti-EU campaign in Austria's referendum on membership of the European Union.

During the current election campaign, he has focussed his attacks on allegations of corruption within the two ruling parties and the extensive system of patronage that they have carved up between themselves.

Mr Haider, for his part, would like to see it abolished. He would also like to scrap the multi-party system and to concentrate power in the hands of a new post, combining president and chancellor.

The parallels with 1933 have been picked up by many. Even if Mr Haider cannot be directly compared with Hitler - and Austria's economic situation is certainly far from that of Germany in the Thirties - he is a dangerous man.

(Photograph omitted)